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Artisanal Fishers in the Storm's Eye: as oceans turn stormier forecasters need to listen to fishers
Posted on behalf of: Dr Max Martin
Last updated: Saturday, 18 November 2023
Ahead of World Fisheries Day (21 November 2023) read a blog piece by our science lead of ‘Forecasting with Fishers’, Dr Max Martin, on how artisanal fishers are seeking localised forecasts and dissemination to the last mile as the North Indian Ocean turns stormier in a changing climate:
LED strings lit up households and music boomed from sound boxes on a bleak monsoon day in Vallavilai, a village of fabled deep-sea tuna fishers 33 miles northwest of Cape Comorin, India’s southernmost point in Kanyakumari district. Robinson Remmy, 35, and his crew of 15 were home for the annual fishing holiday, a time for feasts and family gatherings.
Remmy said he gets less time with family of late. Fishing forays planned for 25–30 days are extending to 40–45 days, stretching supplies, as the crew navigates the increasingly stormier Arabian Sea, part of the North Indian Ocean.
They all fear storms, they all seek forecasts
Remmy would burn talk time on his satellite phone for weather news. Saint Anton, a locally-built, bare-bones vessel, lacks a dedicated weather receiver or satellite internet. Last-mile forecasts are the holy grail of artisanal fishers. For Remmy, the last mile is 500 nautical miles (nm) away from the shore. For fishers on 30-foot fibreglass boats, it is at 50nm, for those on rope-tied shore seine boats just about 5nm, and for free divers who harvest shellfish zero.
They all seek forecasts, observe the sky and the sea, and share notes on mobiles and short-range wireless when they can. They all fear the storms –particularly during pre-monsoon and post-monsoon periods. The Arabian Sea on the western side of India was once calmer than the Bay of Bengal on the east. But no longer.
The Indian Ocean is warming faster than other oceans, and the Arabian Sea is staying warm longer. The warm upper ocean and lower atmosphere spin out and rev up cyclones over the Eastern Arabian Sea, according to a new study published on September 22 in Nature Scientific Reports.
Seeking safe windows amidst turbulent seas
Davidson Anthony Adima has survived storms and accidents in his 25-year career fishing in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, witnessed boats capsizing, crew members being thrown overboard during turbulent seas. Official reports between 2016 and 2021 indicate 145 fishers lost their lives off Thiruvananthapuram’s shores, excluding casualties from Cyclone Ockhi.
The memories of Ockhi linger vividly, grimly. One evening in November 2017, while fishing near his native village close to Thiruvananthapuram, Susa Melkias, a young fisherman, sensed sustained high winds and returned as fast as he could, narrowly avoiding disaster. Many others did not.
Off the shores of south India and Sri Lanka, Ockhi was rapidly gaining strength on its 2500km course. Overnight, phenomenal sea states involving giant waves the size of multistoried buildings would trap hundreds of fishers, killing at least 365 off the shores of South India — more on the Sri Lankan side.
Ockhi shook the fishers’ confidence. “We thought we understood the sea,” veteran fishermen would say. Many abandoned fishing altogether. Wireless sets and weather apps became popular. The storm shook the confidence of forecasters too. Even with their newly- improved, world-class facilities, they overforecast high winds and impose frequent blanket fishing restrictions.
A precarious balancing act between risk and livelihood
In Thiruvananthapuram, frustration grows among its 50,000 artisanal fishers as these restrictions for the entire 367-mile coast of Kerala do not make much sense to them. They often disregard forecasts when the local waters are relatively calmer, as an earlier study showed.
High waves during monsoons at Muthalappozhi harbour where Davidson goes fishing pose fatal risks. To cut through the high waves, Davidson runs his twin outboard engines together – one of 40 horsepower (hp) and another 25hp — a usual practice for the local fishers.
The harbour is risky due to bad design that affects sea patterns. Many such structures and seawalls lead to the loss of sandy beaches. That means fishers won’t have safe spaces to launch and land their craft. With no space for shore seine fishing, elderly fishers get thrown out of work.
Fish, not weather, drives fishing
As much as it is risky, fishing is also precarious and seasonal with uncertain income. The mantra: if there is fish, go fish. It is not bravado that drives the fishers’ risk-taking behaviour. It is often a compulsion to earn enough, pay off high-interest loans, and live a dignified life in a market economy with inadequate safety nets.
Yet, a lot of factors still go into the decision-making black box — wind, waves, currents, the boat’ length, width, speed, load, the angle at which it can capsize or go topsy-turvy… Making snap decisions takes a lot of skill, experience and guts tempered by restraint.
Those attributes kept Melkias alive in the face of Ockhi. Still, his family would lose their house in yet another storm the following year. On a calm day in April 2018, cascading high waves destroyed an entire row of houses on the coast of their village Anjengo. The long-period swell waves from a severe storm in the Southern Ocean 4800 nautical miles away travelled for days. Forecasts allowed for the safe evacuation of inhabitants.
But storms are becoming stronger, longer and meaner. Swell waves and storm surges breach seawalls and destroy homes. Anjengo lost its buffering sandy shores after the local harbour came up.
“Listen closely to fishers”
In a new normal involving extremes and uncertainties, Wilson Franklin, a seasoned fisherman from a few miles south of Anjengo, summed up monsoon fishing experiences: “The trip is dicey – it can be either way.”
Fishermen, like fighter pilots, are given to wry one-liners. Soundbites that hide the unimaginable risks they take, the grim, cold realities of their lives. Like an iceberg.
Behind Franklin’s line and fishers’ terse remarks lies an invaluable lesson for marine forecasters:
“Listen closely to fishers.”
It inspired this research.
Written by Dr Max Martin, Sussex Honorary Research Fellow and Visiting Researcher at the Advanced Centre for Atmospheric Radar Research, Cochin, India. He led the science component of the ‘Forecasting with Fishers’ project which contributes to turning research into a means for safe and sustainable livelihood of artisanal fishers in south India. His recent open-access publication on increased tropical cyclone activity over the Arabian Sea and its implications is available here.
The paper comes at the same time as the release of the new documentary “Crashing Waves”, independently produced by close collaborators and local cinematographers Vincy Lopez and John Bennet. The trailer to the film will be available to watch online soon.